Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
The year was 1946, near the start of the American Occupation of Japan following World War Two. It was a time of great transition for Japanese film making. The nationalistic propaganda films of the Thirties and early Forties with all of their strict guidelines concerning content and presentation were gone only to be replaced by a new set of rules. To some directors, the new rules created an atmosphere of unheard of freedom. Akira Kurosawa seized on the opportunity to show lovers together and showing affection in a field of flowers in One Wonderful Sunday (1947), an image that would never have been allowed under the Japanese Imperialist government. Yasujiro Ozu was able to make his first film in five years with The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947). But then there was Kenji Mizoguchi, the third godfather of Japanese cinema. He struggled to get his first post-war film made. The reason was that he wanted to make a period film. Critic Freda Freiberg wrote that:
In this early period, the Occupation censors were fearful of period films, which they erroneously believed to be the chief purveyors of undemocratic values – ultranationalism, feudalistic ideology and militarism. Mizoguchi had to assure them that there would be no swordplay and that his hero was a man of the people, a democrat ahead of his time.
The film would be about Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the greatest Japanese printmakers and painters of woodblock prints who ever lived. It would be entitled Utamaro and His Five Women (1946). While many critics gloss over this segment of Mizoguchi’s career in favor of his artistic prime during the early Fifties, Utamaro and His Five Women is arguably one of the most important films that he ever made. The reason is that it is the closest we have to a cinematic autobiography of one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs.
The film, obviously, centers on Utamaro and his relationships with five very different women. The first is the refined courtesan Takasode. Next we meet the arrogant geisha Okita. Later in the movie we meet Yukie, the daughter of a wealthy artist and a shy peasant girl named Oran. And finally there is the aging geisha Oshin who hovers around the characters in this film begging to be painted again like when she was younger. Each woman plays an integral part in Utamaro’s life and creative endeavors. Utamaro, most widely known for paintings of women known as bijinga, regards each of them as sources of inspiration and devastating conflict in his life.
When we meet Takasode, she is having Utamaro paint a sketch on her back which will later be tattooed. We watch Utamaro’s uncontrollable joy as he lovingly sketches a beautiful woman onto this courtesan’s back. We witness him in the prime of his talents. Unfortunately, Takasode repays the favor by running away with a man named Shozaburo shortly after the tattoo is completed. While others are amazed by her arrogance, Utamaro shrugs it off saying that such is to be expected when one is using a living canvas. Of course, this act sets in motion a chain of events that will steal from him two of his best models.
Shozaburo was the object of Okita’s eye. When he leaves her, she rebounds by clinging onto one of Utamaro’s disciples named Seinosuke. Seinosuke had recently left his old art master after losing a painting duel with Utamaro. Unfortunately, by leaving his old master, he left Yukie who was desperately in love with him. Yukie follows him and tries to get him back but is cruelly rejected by Seinosuke.
With so many models gone, Utamaro descends into a fit of artist’s block. In order to break his artistic impotence, Utamaro’s etchings merchant Tsutaya takes him to a daimyo’s palace where he makes his female subjects fish naked. In an obvious reference to the American Occupation, they force him to consider new artistic inspirations in order to make him productive. In reality, all they care about is getting him to make bigger and better pieces. Their efforts to influence Utamaro’s work represent attempts to control what he makes and how he does it.
Much like Mizoguchi in the wake of the American Occupation, Utamaro finds a new source of inspiration from their trip to the diamyo’s palace. He spots Oran as one of the women fishing and is immediately enraptured by her beauty. He demands that he be allowed to paint her. He declares that it will be his masterpiece. Even Seinosuke is captivated by her and begs to paint her. Therefore, if Tsutaya represents the American Occupation, Utamaro and Seinosuke’s new artistic spark represents the outpouring of creativity in post-war Japanese cinema. Their old models Takasode, Okita, and poor Oshin are virtually forgotten about. They can be interpreted as the old guard of Japanese cinema that was abandoned by film makers after the American Occupation. It becomes even more symbolic when in a fit of jealous rage Okita locates and kills both Takasode and Shozaburo. With one model dead, one sentenced to be executed, and one completely ignored, Utamaro can focus his attentions to his new muse and begin a new wave of creative genius that will inspire countless artists for years to come.
If the entire story of Utamaro and His Five Women is symbolic of Japanese cinema and its transitions during the American Occupation, then Utamaro himself can be seen as a symbol for Mizoguchi. Going back to Freda Freiberg, she points out that:
Both of them worked in a popular mass-produced medium operated by businessmen, and chafed under oppressive censorship regimes; both frequented the pleasure quarters and sought the company of geishas; but, most significantly, they both achieved fame for their portraits of women.
For Mizoguchi, the plight of women would remain a constant theme in his work. Many of his greatest films revolve around female characters that are abused, neglected, and exploited by Japanese society and in particular, Japanese men. It is believed that this stemmed from events in his life. Mizoguchi’s sister had become a rich man’s mistress to pay for his education. He was even attacked with a knife by a geisha lover that left an incredible scar on his back. These events led to Mizoguchi being strongly sympathetic to exploited women in his films, leading to him being posthumously named one of the cinema’s first great feminists.
So if the plot of Utamaro and His Five Women can be interpreted as an allegory for Mizoguchi and Japanese cinema in general during the American Occupation, it can also be read as a stinging critique of how women were treated in Japanese society. If the film can be interpreted in this way, then the two most sympathetic characters are Yukie and Oshin. Determined to walk in the footsteps of his mentor, Seinosuke callously abandons Yukie even though they were engaged to be married. When she pursues him and begs to be taken back, he ignores her. In one of the most unbearably cruel scenes in Mizoguchi’s career, Seinosuke is confronted with a new model to paint. Yukie arrives on the scene and again implores him to take her back. But all Seinosuke can do is beg the model to allow him to paint her. Walking less than a foot away from Yukie, he seems to ignore her pleas and her very existence all the while begging for the attention of this new woman. Devastated, Yukie runs away crying. Seinosuke begins to paint the new model, completely oblivious to the horrific treatment he has just bestowed his one-time bride-to-be.
And then there is poor Oshin. Once a favorite of Utamaro and a star geisha, she has lost a Japanese woman’s most precious commodity: her youth. Women ignore her and men chide and insult her even when she is attending to them as a geisha. Her slender form has bulged out into layers of fat and premature wrinkles, leading one of her customers to mock her by saying she is built like a wrestler. Having expired as a model and a geisha (i.e. her desirability as a woman), her last resort is to marry one of Utamaro’s employees. What is her motivation for marrying him? Could it be love? Maybe. Or it could be that he, already at an advanced age himself, is the only man who would have her? Or could it be that she just wants to be near Utamaro in the vain hopes of being painted again so she can feel wanted and desired just one more time? The movie is unclear.
What the film isn’t unclear about is its concentrated examination of an artist during a great time of change. Just as Mizoguchi had to endure new rules and regulations considering his films, Utamaro had to seek out new sources of inspiration. In the process, innovations are made, but people are forgotten. By the end of the film, of the five women in Utamaro’s life, only one is fit to be painted. Call it the price of progress, if you wish. But at its heart, Utamaro and His Five Women is a stinging indictment of Japanese society and its treatment towards women as well as a telling portrait of an artist in a state of transition.